Rather, it attracted a respectable number of Brooklynites, not the crowd of 4000 announced from the stage, but at least half that, if you count the transients and the many who retreated to the shady park section to escape the punishing heat. (A DDDB counter later estimated 3200; DDDB had predicted 2000.) As the New York Times noted in an article today headlined (too narrowly) Crowd Gathers to Protest Size of Atlantic Yards Plan, it was the largest demonstration against the project. The Times said the crowd "may have exceeded 2000" people. The New York Post said "thousands." (More photos here.)
The rally galvanized some new supporters in the fight against Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project. More than 1000 people signed DDDB petitions and a similar number signed postcards urging Assembly Speaker Sheldon Speaker to block the deal. As one of the three controlling votes on the Public Authorities Control Board, he has the power to do so, as he did with the West Side Stadium.
DDDB volunteers reported that about a third of the people they approached were signing postcards, so that's an argument for a crowd of 3000. Many of those signing were assumed to be new supporters, since those opposed to the project have previously had the opportunity to sign the petitions and postcards.
The signs said things like "No Arena," "No Extreme Density," "Build Affordable Housing," and "Too Darn Tall." Rally organizers provided fans and water, but those who forgot to bring sunscreen were on their own. There were few parents with kids—likely another casualty of the weather (or the summer weekend)--despite the announced presence of kiddie musician (and DDDB advisory board member) Dan Zanes, who drew 1400 people at a benefit concert six weeks ago. Among the vehicles driving by, a small but regular fraction honked in support.
(While no project proponents came to counter-protest, a couple of representatives of Dan Klores Communications, the p.r. and strategy firm working for Forest City Ratner, were observing the scene. Their boss, Joe DePlasco, offered a vague quote to the Times: “People have legitimate concerns that we have addressed, and will continue to address.")
New supporters, but diversity a challenge
While the rally attracted new supporters from Brooklyn’s brownstone belt—an article about the event and a half-page advertisement appeared in this weekend’s issue of the Brooklyn Papers—the crowd included a relatively small percentage of minorities. The race and class composition of the opposition remains an issue, since DDDB and invited speakers—most of whom were black--have emphasized that this should be a unified fight. “We say no to you dividing our community up,” declared City Council Member Charles Barron. “This is white and black and progressive and working class saying no to a billion-dollar developer.”
“This is not over,” Barron trumpeted, forecasting a new city government in 2009. “The mayor will be gone. The borough president will be gone. We’ve got a chance to stop this project.”
(It's hard to call the turnout a proxy for attitudes about the project. A political organizer who recently went door to door in the Atlantic Terminal 4B housing project in Fort Greene told me that he heard no enthusiasm for Atlantic Yards, though it didn't necessarily translate into support for DDDB. A member of Community Board 8, in Metro New York, commented, "I’m upset that people in the community didn’t show up before Ratner came up with a plan and say what we should do there." But he left out the responsibility of the government to seek proposals for the Vanderbilt Yard and area around it.)
After saying that the group shouldn't be slaves to development just because it promised jobs and affordable housing, Barron (right) declared, “While I’m at it, I’m looking for Magic Johnson.” He decried Johnson’s effort to convert the Williamsburgh Savings Bank to luxury apartments without any affordable housing. Indeed, just across from the rally site, One Prospect Park, Richard Meier’s 15-story luxury building, is under construction.
The Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church, gamely wearing his Sunday suit, pointed out that people who ask about affordable housing at the Atlantic Yards project are told that nothing would happen until 2009. (That’s when applications would be distributed for units made available in 2010.) “Why wait until 2009 to building housing we need right now,” he said. “We love basketball, but this is not about the game of basketball. It’s about who can grab the most real estate the quickest.”
Activist and entrepreneur Bob Law, a former Black Panther, criticized project supporters for accepting “anything he [Bruce Ratner] says. They say, ‘Ok, boss.’”
Law offered some counsel. “Don’t let this be the only issue you organize around,” he said. “Take advantage of that. Make this a permanent movement. Let DDDB be a significant organization, not a one-issue organization.”
Indeed, while simply pulling off the rally took many volunteer hours and the upcoming Atlantic Yards environmental review will require much analysis, DDDB has already influenced several political races—and has the potential to further influence discussions about development in Brooklyn.
Fighting the developers
“Turn up the heat on these greedy developers,” said Council Member Letitia James (right), who represents the district where the project would be built. Go to the polls and send a message, she asserted, reminding voters to support fellow project opponent State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who has just received a primary challenge from Tracy Boyland. Montgomery later spoke, as well. (Photo from here.)
An unscheduled speaker was Council Member Tony Avella, who represents Bayside in Queens but has emerged as a strong critic of development. “We have to start saying no to overdevelopment and yes to people power,” said Avella, who announced he was planning to run for mayor in 2009 on the issue of “giving control of the neighborhoods back to citizens.”
He also said he was working with the Municipal Art Society to craft legislation that would foster more local control over development projects, but later acknowledged it would be a fight to get it passed.
Ratner’s poster girl
“Done deal—give me a break,” pronounced DDDB spokesman Daniel Goldstein. “This deal is coming undone…. If Brooklyn wants an arena, and we don’t get one, Bruce Ratner gets the blame for shoving it down our throats.” He said an arena could be built in Coney Island--a project Borough President Marty Markowitz used to support--without eminent domain. And he touted the rival bid by developer Extell for the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard, calling it “appropriate density, not insane density.”
Goldstein hoisted a placard with a blown-up page from Forest City Ratner’s notorious brochure issued in May. The actress whose stock photo was used in the brochure, T. Sahara Meer, had opposed the project and, since the brochure was released, emerged as one of DDDB’s most energetic volunteers. Meer appeared onstage (right) to exhort more people to sign up.
Lumi Rolley of No Land Grab appeared in full colonial garb, on horseback (right), wearing a sash saying "One if by land grab."
Early in the rally, attendees were entertained by Reverend Billy, the street-theater preacher known for anticonsumerist protests. “We’ve got to save our neighborhood from the big footprint of the devil,” he declared. (It was an ironic counterpoint, one observer told me, to project supporter James Caldwell of BUILD's statement that Forest City Ratner was "truly like an angel in heaven.")
While his “Stop Shopping Chorus” got some laughs, Reverend Billy’s m.o. didn’t sit completely well with Barron and Law, both of whom warned about making fun of the black church. Perhaps a bit of cultural disconnect was at work; Reverend Billy satirizes rapacious televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart.
It was hard to work the crowd into a lather, but probably the biggest cheers for the afternoon came for two celebrity members of the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn Advisory Board, actors Steve Buscemi and Rosie Perez. Buscemi offered some amusing doggerel, including: “Affordable housing/but eminent domain/I play a lot of crazies/but that sounds insane.”
“I don’t hate Bruce Ratner—I just don’t like him very much,” asserted Perez in her trademark New Yorkese, and closed by uttering the title of the film that made her famous: “Do the right thing.”
A multipronged effort
Other speakers included Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, recounting how she was the first to galvanize resistance to the project; Nellie Hester Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council, who had some tough words for ACORN head Bertha Lewis, who signed the affordable housing agreement with Forest City Ratner; and the Rev. Dennis Dillon of the Brooklyn Christian Center, who said, “We must live together or perish like fools.” (At right, a poster with photos of Lewis kissing Bruce Ratner and Mayor Mike Bloomberg after the affordable housing deal was announced in May 2005.)
Also appearing were Chris Owens, a candidate for the 11th Congressional District; Bill Batson, candidate for the 57th Assembly District; and Rachel Treichler, Green Party candidate for Attorney General. Campaign organizers handed out fliers for Tom Suozzi, who's challenging frontrunner Eliot Spitzer for the Democratic nomination for governor.
“Three years and counting, we stand at a crossroads in the fight for the heart and soul of Brooklyn,” declared James. “Here we are three years and counting and there’s no done deal.”
On Tuesday, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is expected to take another step forward and release the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). That will lead to a public hearing and a comment period before a Final EIS is released and the ESDC--and the PACB--issue their approvals.
And DDDB announced its second annual walkathon, on October 21, to raise money for the inevitable legal fight to stave off those approvals, either because of a challenge to the use of eminent domain or a challenge to the review process itself.